December 22 – A Goose For Christmas

Today’s factismal: Scrooge bought a turkey for the Cratchit because it was more expensive than a goose.

If you’ve ever read Dicken’s classic “A Christmas Carol” (or seen any of the many, many, many, many, many film versions of the tale), then you know how it ends: Scrooge wakes up and proves that he’s reformed by buying a turkey for his poor, overworked clerk Bob Cratchit. Now the generosity of buying a meal for someone is nice but one thing that might puzzle modern readers is why did Scrooge buy a turkey? Why didn’t he buy a goose instead? Isn’t that the better bird? The answer, as always, is both yes and no.

The goose was the poor man's meal when "A Christmas Carol" was written (My camera)

The goose was the poor man’s meal when “A Christmas Carol” was written
(My camera)

Today, goose is considered a rare an exotic meat, reserved for special occasions (at least in the USA). But back when Dickens wrote his homily, the goose was the humble animal; unlike turkeys, geese were native to England. That made them cheap to raise and feed, while turkeys were expensive and rare. As a result, a goose was a poor man’s bird while a turkey was something that only a member of upper class society would expect to enjoy. So when Scrooge sent a turkey to the Cratchit family, he wasn’t just sending them a meal. He was sending them an invitation to join the upper class. Today, thanks to advances in modern agriculture and cheap transportation, turkey is the cheap bird and goose is the expensive treat. But both remain delicious reminders of human generosity.

Turkeys were exotic and expensive back in the 1800s (My camera)

Turkeys were exotic and expensive back in the 1800s
(My camera)

They are also reminders that birds are pretty special in many ways. As the last living descendants of the dinosaurs, they tell us about life millions of years ago. And as one of the most common types of animal, they show us how diverse and wonderful our world is. If you’d like to turn the tables on the birds this year and serve them (instead of them being served to you), then why not join in on the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count? Since 1900, this annual event has helped scientists learn more about where birds live and how many there are.  During the first Christmas Bird Count, 90 different species were seen at some 27 locations; last year’s Christmas Bird Count counted 68,753,007 birds belonging to 2,106 different species in 2,462 different spots! To learn more about how to take part this year, wing on over to:

December 15 – Pointers and Settias

Today’s factismal: The poinsettia and the Chinese tallow tree come from the same plant family.

For some folks, nothing says Christmas like a big, leafy poinsettia plant. These red and green bush has been a symbol of the season almost since the day that Joel Poinsett brought the first one back from his stay as ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Though the ones sold at the stores are typically only about a foot tall, under the right conditions (warm, fertile soil, plenty of sun and rain) they can grow to be more than 13 feet high! Interestingly, the bright red showy part of the plant isn’t the actual flower; they are leaves that respond to longer nights by turning color. The real flowers are the tiny yellow cyathia located in the center of the red leaves. They share this adaptation with the other members of their plant family, the Euphorbia (named after a Greek physician who described the laxative properties of the family back in 12 BCE). Though many in the family have bright colors and showy leaves like the poinsettia, others appear dull and drab.

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family (Image courtesy USDA)

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family
(Image courtesy USDA)

And, as is true in many families, the showiest ones are the least interesting and the most intriguing are the ones that don’t make a big entrance. For example, though the poinsettia is beautiful and popular across the world at this time of the year, the Chinese tallow plant may be both more valuable and more troublesome. That’s because the Chinese tallow plant acts as a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinating insects; in addition, the leaves and nuts of the plant are so rich in oil that they are used to make candles and soap. Some people are even exploring turning the Chinese tallow plant into biodiesel. However, the plant is also an aggressive invasive throughout much of America’s South. It is currently against state law to buy, sell, transport, or plant one in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Despite this, some nurseries in the Northern United States still sell it as an ornamental plant!

The Chinese tallow is found across the South (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow is found across the South
(Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn't pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn’t pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious
(Image courtesy USDA)

If you come across a Chinese tallow plant (or any other invasive plant), please report it to your state agricultural office. And if you’d like to do more to help keep invasives from ruining our beautiful land, then why not join the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Volunteers against invasives program? For more details, go to:

December 8 – Amazing Grace

Today’s factismal: Tomorrow is Grace Hopper’s 109th birthday!

There is no doubt that women today have a tough row to hoe; they face an uphill battle in every field from psychology to medicine to particle physics. But that battle would be even more difficult if it weren’t for the efforts of women such as Rear Admiral “Amazing Grace” Hopper, who fought ignorance and sexism while also helping us to win World War II.

Grace Hopper with a UNIVAC that she taught to do COBOL (Image courtesy IBM)

Grace Hopper with a UNIVAC that she taught to do COBOL
(Image courtesy IBM)

Hopper was born on December 9, 1906, in New York City where she quickly demonstrated her aptitudes at the age of seven by taking apart alarm clocks to see how they worked. She stayed curious and kept learning, so much so that she was admitted to Vassar at the age of 17 and then to Yale, where she earned her PhD in 1934. By that time she was already a professor at Vassar, a post she would keep until the outbreak of World War II changed everything; she forced the Navy to enroll her as a midshipman (they didn’t want her because she was too small) and soon graduated at the top of her class.

At the time, the US Navy was using analog calculators to predict the tides and perform other complex calculations. And the most important of these was the Harvard Mark 1 Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator. This 10,000 pound behemoth was 816 cubic feet of gears, cams, and cogs, powered by motors and controlled by 1,440 switches connected with 500 miles of wire that made 3,000,000 connections in the machine. And what did this mass of magnificent machinery do? After the programmers had spent the better part of a day setting up a math problem by punching holes in a paper tape, it could chug through it at the rate of six seconds for each multiplication. (If this seems slow to you, remember that the alternative was having a person do the calculation by hand on paper. When the numbers involved are 23.7890123546823 x 0.183764527829, you are willing to take a little time…)

For each new problem, a brand new paper tape had to be made with new instructions and the switches reset. But if any of the steps was wrong, then the whole tape and all of the switches had to be examined to find out which one was causing the problem. Because the commands were written only as a series of holes in paper (what we would call “ones and zeros” today), this was a tedious, painstaking affair that often took much longer than punching the original program did. It was that process, which she and others repeated thousands of times during the war, that gave her the insight of a compiler: a program that took already coded subroutines and followed a set of “ordinary language” instructions to call up the subroutines in a specific order. When her colleagues told her that such a program couldn’t be written, she did so, creating the very first compiler in 1951.

She soon developed improved versions of her compiler, relying on free copies that had been given to customers (the first open source programming!). By 1959, Hopper’s compiler was used as the basis for COBOL, one of the first and most influential computer languages. (Remember Y2K? It didn’t happen because of people who knew COBOL.) After that, Hopper went back into the Navy where she served until she retired as a commander in 1966 at the mandatory retirement age of 60.

Grace Hopper at the time of her final retirement (Image courtesy US Navy)

Grace Hopper at the time of her final retirement
(Image courtesy US Navy)

But the Navy decided that they needed her too much and waived the rules to let her come back, at which point she developed standards testing for Navy computer systems and promoted the idea of distributed computing. (Ever hear of the cloud? Yeah, that was her idea.) And she kept having great ideas until she was once again forced to retire at the age of 65. That time, the Navy only lasted six months before they asked her to come back at the rank of captain. She was soon promoted to Commodore (which became Rear Admiral) and kept in the Navy by special act of Congress until she was 79 years old. When they finally let her go, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the United States Navy.

Hopper showed the Navy and the world that women have what it takes to be the best programmers around. She led the field, even when it didn’t want to be led, and helped create the modern technological wonderland that we live in. And there is no better way to celebrate her birthday than by taking part in the Hour of Code. This tech challenge happens every year and kicks off Computer Science Week (which takes place this week in honor of Grace Hopper). At the Hour of Code, they have resources for educators, students, and citizen scientists – so there’s fun for everyone! To get started, set your browser to:

November 24 – Volcano-no

Today’s factismal: Many of the words for lava are Hawaiian.

If you ask any geo-geek about molten rock and the first question that he’ll ask is “inside the ground or on top of it?” That’s because geology has different names for molten rock depending on where it is. When the molten rock is inside the ground, it is called magma. When it is exposed on the surface, it is called lava. And, unlike many other pedantries, this distinction actually makes sense. That’s because lava meets the air (or the water) on one side, which allows it to cool more quickly which means that it tends to have smaller crystals but magma is all wrapped up in a blanket of rock, which means it cools more slowly which means it tends to have bigger crystals.

This Hawai'i volcano makes very small crystals (Image courtesy USGS)

A Hawai’i volcano making a’a
(Image courtesy USGS)

And that isn’t the only place where volcanic terminology gets down and detailed. For example, when basaltic lava erupts at a low temperature (just about 2000°F), it is stiff and moves slowly; as a result, the outer surface breaks off in a layer of small pebbles known as clinkers. When the mass cools, it is called a’a, from the Hawai’ian for “stony lava”. But when the lava is nice and hot, it is very thin and moves quickly. This means that the upper surface, which forms a skin like that on hot milk, The skin cools into a distinctive form known as pahoehoe or “smooth lava”. And if the basaltic lava erupts under water, it forms small little pillows that we call (wait for it) pillow basalts.

Two geologists standing near a lava flow (Image courtesy USGS)

Two geologists standing near a pahoehoe lava flow
(Image courtesy USGS)

If you’d like to learn more about the weird and wonderful world of volcanoes, why not head on over to the USGS Volcano web site?

November 23 – That She Blows!

Today’s Factismal: A whale exploded in the town of Tainan, Taiwan in 2004, shattering windows and crushing cars.

There are a few basic rules of good research. Don’t forget to turn off the Bunsen burner. Don’t drink and derive. And (most essential of all) never mess with a rotting whale.

That last is important because of what happens when anything dies: things start to grow in it that shouldn’t. And those things generate methane, flavored with intestinal ketones and esters of pure yuck. Now, if people left the rotting things alone, then they’d do no real harm in the short run and end up giving you better soil in the long run (think of what a compost heap does for your garden). But they sure do smell, courtesy of all of those ketones and esters. And that means that people invariably want to put that smell as far away as possible.

So people try to blow up whales. And they try to bury whales. And they try to drive whales through the middle of downtown on a truck bed. And it never ends well.

At least, not on land. But scientists have done some interesting work with whale carcasses in the ocean and gotten amazing results. When whale carcasses wash ashore in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute pulls them out to sea and sinks them where they can be watched. Over the years, they’ve learned how whale carcasses and other big messes get cleaned up on the ocean floor.

First, the big predators like sharks, crabs, and hagfish come by and strip away the meat. Then comes a type of worm known as the “bone-eating snot flower” (Osedax mucofloris ) for its diet and shape. Osedax worms only live on whale bones; more specifically, they bore into the whale bones using acid and then suck the marrow from the bones. The marrow is rich in fat, which feeds bacteria that live in the Osodex worm. The bacteria then give off wastes that the worm is able to use as food. Within a matter of months, a colony of Osodex worms can reduce a whale skeleton to a giant pile of mush, suitable for enriching the ocean floor. There are similar detritovores that live on land, from the vulgar earthworm to the sacred dung beetle. And without them, the world would be a lot messier and less pleasant to live in.

If you’d like to try your hand at making the world of science a better place to live in, then consider working with as they try to match whale songs from across the globe:

November 17 – The Big Sleep

Today’s factimsal: Every year, Monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to the Great Lakes and back again; the journey takes four generations to complete!

Yes, today is a repeated factismal. And that’s because it is one of those things that is so amazing that you simply have to repeat it to believe it. Today, while Americans search for antacids and bargains, the great-grandchildren of the Monarch butterflies that left Mexico in the spring are heading back to their winter home. Once there, they will enter a state similar to suspended animation and live that way throughout the winter. Come spring, they will lay the eggs that will become the first generation to head back north.

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

The route taken by four generations of monarchs for time immemorial

Just think about it and you’ll see how amazing the journey is. The Monarch butterflies that are in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas right now will be in Mexico’s forests before the end of December. There they will enter diapause and wait until spring before waking up. (Anyone who has ever tried to wake a teenager can sympathize.) After that, the butterfly will start north and lay eggs along the way. Those eggs will hatch into caterpillars that will turn into the butterflies that actually make it to the Northern United Sates, where the butterflies will spend the summer. Come fall, the children of those summer Monarchs will head south, laying yet more eggs on the way. Those eggs will become the butterflies that actually make it all the way back to Mexico, nearly a year and four generations later.

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

But for some reason, the number of butterflies that mange the trip each year is decreasing. Is it climate change? Is it changes in land use? Is it a natural fluctuation? We simply don’t have enough information to decide. But you can help gather that information. Right now, the folks at the Xerces Society are looking for volunteers to go out and count butterflies (this is easier than it sounds like). By comparing the numbers from year to year and looking at the geographical distribution, they hope to be able to discover why one of our most beautiful butterflies is becoming one of our rarest. To help them, join in on the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Butterfly Count at:

November 10 – Getting Hot In Here

Today’s factismal: The Earth is, on average, 1°C warmer today than it was in the 20th century.

Imagine that it is a cold, winters night and you’d like to sleep in a warm bed. Rather than turning up the heat (because that costs money), you put another blanket on the bed. In just a few moments, you are warm and toasty. But why? You can thank the science of thermodynamics. You are warmer than the air around you on all but the hottest days; as a result, heat escapes from you and heads into the air. But when you add a blanket (or wear clothes), some of that heat is reflected back. As a result, you lose heat more slowly and your temperature goes up.

Right now, the Earth has a blanket of what are called “greenhouse gases” around it. The gases, which include carbon dioxide (or CO2), methane, and water, act just like that blanket on your bed. They slow down the rate that heat leaves the Earth, raising the temperature. This effect is not news; scientists first predicted it back in 1896 and have been estimating its effects ever since. And one of the most interesting things about their predictions (other than the fact that they have usually come to pass) is that they have said “there is high confidence that ECS is extremely unlikely less than 1°C and medium confidence that the ECS is likely between 1.5°C and 4.5°C and very unlikely greater than 6°C”.

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average. (Image courtesy NOAA)

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average.
(Image courtesy NOAA)

What does that wiffle-waffle mean? It means that the Earth is likely to warm up and that the amount of warming will be at least 1°C. And this month, we have evidence that they are, once again, right. That’s because, unless the last three months of this year are exceptionally cool (which isn’t likely), the average temperature of the Earth will be  1°C warmer than the 20th century average. To give you an idea of what this means, remember that the average temperature in 1816 (“the Year Without A Summer“) was about 1°C below the 20th century average. So we are now as hot as they were cold. The main difference being that the temperatures only stayed below average for a couple of years in 1816; this year’s high marks the 39th year in a row that temperatures have been above average.

As a citizen scientist, there are two sets of things you can do. The first is to reduce the amount of energy you use; a nice benefit of this is that you also save money. For example, making sure that your tires are properly inflated will save you the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon and save the US the equivalent of 1.2 billion gallons of oil. Adding a layer of insulation to your water heater (like that blanket on your bed) will save you about $30 per year and save the US another 500 million gallons of oil. There are plenty of other way you can save money while saving the planet. But if you still want to do more, why not help record the changes that global warming is bringing to your neighborhood? Join iSeeChange and help them monitor how temperatures, weather, and other things are changing. To learn more, head to: